Windows 7 RC Media Center initial impressions

I have been evaluating W7 since Beta in virtual machines. I was initially impressed with the speed and simplicity of installation and the overall performance of the base install when compared to Vista – even in my resource restricted VMs. Seems MS have removed most of the CPU hogging crap that came with Vista….

I have been running Vista Media centre with 5 XBOX 360 extenders for two years with good performance and minimal issues. Most of my problems have been driver issues with the 2 x Fusion Plus PCI tuners, IceTV and and power problems with the box I built (my fault). As long as kept the machine down to bare bones, it chugged along OK.

I recently built a new machine for about $600. 2GB RAM, Intel E5400, Gigabyte MB, 2 x IDE drives, on board video and ran it as a test machine for about a month without incident.

On the weekend, wife was away so I finally bit the bullet and installed the DNTV PCI dual tuner card and put the W7 box into production. (Got rid of the Fusion plus cards, got sick of the crappy drivers…) Installed the latest drives for the tuner card from the web site, tuned the channels and was up and running in a flash.

You have to upgrade all XBOX 360s to the “New Experience” to connect to W7 and install the optional media update through Xbox live to play DIVX and H264 files. This is not a big deal for me as only one of my XBOX 360s had not been upgraded yet.

Other things I learned along the way:

1. Channel scanning is different. If you are used to seeing all your channels found at 18% (say), don’t worry when W7 gets to 75% without finding much. Mine found most of the channels above 80%. I ended up with exactly the same number of channels in the end. Just be patient wait.

2. Media indexing / cache building is a resource hog on W7. My media is on a separate NAS connected over 100 mbit wired LAN. Still, when Media player wants to index your files, you have to let it do so and NOT do anything else. Just be patient and do it in the foreground otherwise your XBOX will be disconnected and may not be able to reconnect (due to the huge network traffic from the NAS).

3. Each Xbox 360 extender has its own media cache. So you have to let each extender, connect and build its media cache in turn. For my 6000 songs, 15000 photos, 100 videos, it took about 1 hour each. Be patient.

Now some of the really good things about W7:

1. Support for OTA electronic program guides. I was about to install IceTV and noticed some channels had guides already. Then as I selected each channel the guide was filled automatically. No need for free epg or icetv. Yay. Be warned though, the stations are not consistent in the program naming so recording series can be flaky. eg for AFL, Seven puts the teams playing in the name so each game looks different to W7 and not considered part of a “series”. I just review my scheduled recordings weekly now. Free is good.

2. Ability to select sources. I am in the inner west of Sydney so get multiple signals for each channel. With W7 you can now set the priority of sources based on tuner and signal strength. You can even disable sources altogether. Guide | select channel | info button (right click) | edit channel | Edit sources. Yay!

3. Colour coding of the guide. You can enable colour coding of the guide to show news/current affairs vs movies vs sport. Neat.

4. Support for DIVX/XVID files in the native MCE interface. Not only XVID but XVID with 5.1 AC3!!! now I can watch all my home movies in 5.1 AC3 Only issue I have found with this is the inability to fast forward or rewind while watching. Can skip (30s) and backwards (5s) only. Probably a bug.

5. Support for H264 with stereo audio videos in the native MCE interface. this means unprotected itunes videos will now play in the native interface. I suspect unprotected AAC audio (read itunes) files will work too but have not tested as I don’t have any. Transcoding is over, the need for a Upnp AV server is also over. Essentially, there is no need to leave the MCE interface any more unless you want to play a game.

6. Movie library works. Cover art, rating, genre, synposis etc. Download dvdxml files from dvdxm.com, put your cover art as a folder.jpg and select your movies from the cover art. …. Cool.

7. Play photos with music. Play music with photos. Start via the info (right button) key. Default interface of photo viewing in music is a cool random animated b&w album with zoom into colour.

8. Internet radio stations work. I have got Internode internet radio stations working in the native MCE interface a m3u playlist. Just worked.

9. TV programs recorded under Vista play OK in W7. Apparently the formats have changed but W7 is backward compatible. Apparently it doesn’t work the other way.

10. Performance is fine. I can record 2 HD programs, watch a DIVX movie and play music simultaneously over 100 Mbit LAN without issue. My CPU runs at around 60% and memory usage at 1.1 GB.

Overall I am very happy with my W7 and XBOX 360 setup. Its a big improvement over VMC. I will definitely be purchasing W7 as soon as it is gold.

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